Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2

Kalinnikov: Symphonies 1 & 2Royal Scottish National Orchestra / Neeme Järvi
Chandos CHAN 9546, DDD
Symphony No. 1  (37:37)
Symphony No. 2  (37:33)

This writer feels that had Vasily Sergeyevich Kalinnikov not died of tuberculosis two days before his thirty-fifth birthday, we would be mentioning him alongside people like Rachmaninov, Lyadov, and the mighty “Russian Five” (Rimsky-Korsakov, Moussorgsky, Borodin, Balakirev and Cui).  His two symphonies can be very favorably compared to those from the aforementioned, especially when you consider that Kalinnikov got his music education on the cheap.

Kalinnikov was born January 13, 1866 in Voina, in Russia’s Oryol District, to a very poor family.  From this village, Kalinnikov received a scholarship to Moscow’s Philharmonic Society School, but his family’s poverty forced him to leave school and make a living playing violin, bassoon and timpani in theatre orchestras.  Semyon Kruglikov is possibly even more obscure than Kalinnikov, but scholars of Russian music rightfully point out the significance of this important music critic and teacher.  Kruglikov took notice of Kalinnikov, taught him harmony, and introduced him to other musicians.  Tchaikovsky found for Kalinnikov the conductor’s job at the Maly Theatre in Moscow and later a similar job at the Moscow Italian Theatre, but it was in 1899 that Kalinnikov contracted tuberculosis and had no choice but to resign and move to the warmer climate in the Crimea.  This is where Kalinnikov wrote most of his music before he died at Yalta in January of 1901.

Kalinnikov’s symphonies — especially his first — are as full of Russian character as the music of his contemporaries, especially The Five, in that they follow very much the same structure and flavor and also suggest Brahms’ and Rachmaninov’s use of dynamics and thematic development, and Tchaikovsky’s use of rhythm.  The distinguishing feature in both works is Kalinnikov’s creative changes and modulation, since they wind up in unexpected – but entirely listenable – keys.  Kalinnikov was especially effective in weaving various themes together without consuming excessive amounts of time.

Kalinnikov’s beautiful sense of melody is evident in the slow movements of both symphonies, particularly the serene Andante commodamente in the first symphony, where the supporting orchestration is sublime and never out-of-character.  A lovely passage occurs toward the end of the andante cantabile in the second symphony when the celli take the melody, then hand off to the violins, winds and harp during a descending pattern, closing the movement in a fashion that echoes the melancholy of Rachmaninov and reeks wonderfully of Russian flavor.  This is as enjoyable for musicians as it is for listeners, and here Järvi and the RSNO treat this beautifully and flawlessly.  The Andante commodamente might be the best part of the disc; the music will probably stay in your head long after you turn off your CD player.

The third movements in both works feature strongly-flavored folk dances, punctuated by several fortissimo bursts from the orchestra and winding up with forceful flourishes, played here to the proper effect by the RSNO.  Dvořák probably would have been very pleased.

The final movement of Kalinnikov’s first symphony is more towering and creative than its counterpart from #2; the oboe melody from the second movement gets new life in the concluding theme, back-loaded not only with strong brass parts but with flavorful use of percussion.  It is as majestic as the Finale of Rachmaninov’s second symphony, but is perhaps more memorable because Kalinnikov weaves his themes and makes his points without consuming nearly as much time and effort as does Mr. “Six-Feet-of-Gloom.”

The RSNO have produced many fine recordings, and this one is no exception.  It’s not totally perfect; the first symphony includes wonderful E-flat and G-Major sequences in the Finale where the violins play 16th-notes underneath powerful chords from the brass, and while they stay together, the entire violin section gets slightly disjointed from the brass.  This may be a result of the acoustics in Glasgow’s Henry Wood Hall, however.  In this writer’s opinion, Neeme Järvi should have taken a slightly slower tempo here.  One of the RSNO cellists also let slip a stray A-string during the third movement of that same work.

Don’t let any of these quibbles turn you away; this is really a solid compilation that will likely send you searching for recordings of Kalinnikov’s other works.  This disc is a result of Chandos taking the first symphony from their CHAN 8611 release and the second from CHAN 8805.  If you can manage to find these two CDs still available, you’ll also obtain recordings of Kalinnikov’s last-ever composition, the lovely symphonic picture The Cedar and the Palm and his Overture to Tsar Boris, as well as two tone poems by Alexander Glazunov.  The two discs may still be available from Chandos and/or other on-line sources and are well-worth the trouble of looking.  Nevertheless, the RSNO’s performance here is very enjoyable – a CD definitely worth the purchase.


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